Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Leanne Welham
Written for the screen by Alice Birch, Mark O’Halloran, Meadhbh McHugh, Susan Soon He Stanton
Based on the novel by Sally Rooney
The spectre of Normal People hovers large over Conversations with Friends. It’s perhaps understandable given just how unexpectedly successful the BBC’s previous Sally Rooney adaptation was; produced as a BBC Three Original, broadcast during the height of Covid-related lockdown on BBC One and becoming a massive commercial and critical success, you can’t help but want to look reassuringly at Conversations with Friends with a sympathetic smile and tell it that there is ‘no pressure’ even though there kind of is.
It is perhaps unfair to put that sort of pressure on to a television series or film, but unfortunately that type of thing does tend to happen to follow-ups to previously unexpected commercial successes and it also perhaps explains the somewhat indifferent reaction that greeted Conversations with Friends upon its premiere.
The slow pace, passive nature of its lead characters and the mannered aura that directors Abrahmson and Welham use to capture the simmering emotional air of Rooney’s novel feels like the type of thing that could easily be parodied. Yet, if you let yourself fall into its languid air, it proves a hard series to not fall in love with.
Everything about it is subtle in its delivery and the observational nature of its scenes play out in a glacial manner but does so in such a powerful manner that you find yourself getting increasingly drawn into its tenderly biting orbit. It never takes a sensationalist approach to its story of complex relationships, instead playing scenes out in a slow but encroaching manner that feels as if they perfectly capture the inner workings of the mind of two of its central protagonists.
While Normal People made it to the screen first, Conversations with Friends was in fact Rooney’s debut novel, and where her second book’s adaptation squarely focused in on one central couple, Conversations takes the affair at the heart of its story and the emotional well being of its two main players and shows not only the delicate nature of their somewhat illicit union, but also the quiet impact it has on those around them when their relationship is inevitably discovered.
It would be so easy to take this story and turn it into a soap opera reliant on emotional hysterics, but Rooney’s novel and the adaptation here from writers that include Succession‘s Susan Soon He Stanton, never take the easy route, instead finding a way to bring the introverted nature of characters such as Frances (Alison Oliver) to subtly vivid life.
Presented in twelve episodes that barely run for a half hour, this might be one of those instances where a series is best binged. Similarly to the previous Rooney adaptation (and yes, I realise I am constantly referring back to it myself), the series has been broadcast by the BBC in double bills, becoming the centre piece of BBC Three’s recent relaunch as a linear television channel, something brought about by the massive success of not only Normal People, but also Fleabag and I Will Destroy You over the last three years.
It says a lot about how quietly impactful BBC Three has become as a digital strand for the BBC’s iPlayer service that its biggest and most groundbreaking series have been centred on the lives of younger protagonists. This might sound like a trite observation that feels as if it’s going to fall into the realm of ‘oh no, young people’, but I assure you it isn’t. It says a lot about today’s younger generation of writers that some of the most emotionally devastating and acutely observational works are coming from diverse younger talents that skirts across the Millennial line such as Rooney, Michaela Cole and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Conversations with Friends will no doubt be made fun of for how quiet and emotionally reserved its two leads are frequently portrayed as, both of whom are played to perfection by Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn (the Irish accent wanders admittedly but he plays the role so brilliantly that it makes up for that), and one could see the potential for spoofery given how low-key their interactions are throughout the first half of the series, but if it gets it hooks into you (and it did with me, hence the positivity of this review, so apologies if you came here expecting me to knock it for six), it becomes a series you can’t get enough of for its six hour run time.
The way in which Abrahamson and Welham’s cameras capture Dublin (sometimes played by Belfast, and don’t think this Norn Iron boy didn’t notice when Belfast was on screen) makes it a none more Dublin show, with those increasingly modernising streets, albeit one still drenched in a past of cobbled pavements, small Irish stores and pubs all serving the best tasting Guinness, becoming a potent setting for such devastatingly played dramas.
Those dramas are perhaps small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but like Rooney’s prose the series knows that everything feels bigger when you’re in your early-to-mid twenties, that strange period where you’re now an adult but your childhood and teenage years are still fresh in the memory and carrying over into the burgeoning worlds of living on your own but still in the world of education. Everything is heightened even if emotions are hard to articulate, especially for half of this cast of characters.
When that cast includes what should be star making performances from Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn and equally fantastic work from Sasha Lane and Jemima Kirke, both of whom take what could have easily been unsympathetic characters and turn them into incredibly complex ones, along with tenderly devastating writing and direction as displayed here, it makes for a potent piece of television that will stay long with you after its powerful final episode and moments.